Her second grade students need to fidget, veteran Bronx teacher Áine Sia understands.
This year, her students — who have never yet had a full year of in-person schooling — range in their ability to stay seated. Those who spent some time in the classroom last year are able to sit for longer stretches than those who were fully remote, and they constantly need to go to the bathroom, said Sia, who has been teaching for nearly three decades.
Instead of trying to “correct” her students and try to get them to sit still, Sia wants to embrace their movement and channel it positively by getting seats that allow them to move. She turned to DonorsChoose to fund her $605 goal to purchase three ergonomic bounce chairs and three balance ball seats.
“If you keep shutting kids down because they can’t sit still, then what? If you turn them off because they won’t sit in a chair, what’s your option now?” Sia asked, noting that the addition of colorful chairs in different shapes and sizes makes her room look less boring. “I want my students to read and write and love life, and at this point, I want them to be more socially secure before they read and write. These kids are dealing with a lot.”
Sia has turned to DonorsChoose more than 20 times over the past 13 years, raising more than $20,000 for everything from pencils and snacks, to trash bags and Chromebooks.
Many teachers embrace the crowdfunding platform to help them fund materials and projects for their classrooms, especially at schools like Sia’s, P.S. 112, where nearly all students come from low-income families, and parent-teacher associations don’t have the wherewithal to fundraise to fill gaps.
Despite more than $7 billion of federal stimulus funding earmarked for New York City schools, thousands of teachers still are lacking things they believe will help their students this year and are turning to DonorsChoose, a nonprofit that vets each project on its site and ships fully funded projects directly to educators. Some Bronx teachers are raising money for microphones and speakers to help amplify voices behind masks. Several others are hoping to get headphones, materials that can help relax their students, and books that reflect the faces of their students.
More than 3,800 New York City teachers at “equity focus schools” — which are defined by DonorsChoose as schools where at least half of students are Black, Latino, Native American or Pacific Islander, and at least 50% of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch — have posted projects this year on the platform, according to a company representative.
The charity site, however, has caused conflict in some school communities with gifted and talented programs where families in those classrooms have been able to fund their teachers’ projects more easily than their counterparts in general education classes, said Allison Roda, an assistant professor at Molloy College who has written extensively about New York City’s gifted programs.
Some families felt that the money flowing into the gifted classrooms came at the expense of raising money for school-wide projects, she said. At one school where she was researching, the inequities over funding mobilized families to phase out the gifted program — which is something that Mayor Bill de Blasio hopes to do citywide, but Mayor-elect Eric Adams has called into question.
“Due to the resource hoarding, there is also a sense that the G&T classes are ‘better’ because more money is flowing into those classes, and more parents are volunteering compared to the other tracks,” Roda wrote in an email. “They have flexible seating, bean bag chairs, new computers, and brand new carpets donated. G&T parents said they want those things for their child. Yet, parents in the general education, ICT [integrated co-teaching for special education], and Dual language tracks believed that parents should be fighting for those things for all of the classes.”
Meanwhile, teachers at some schools with students from low-income families have taken to posting on Twitter and tagging rich and famous people, asking to help fund their projects. (Some of these projects will get a boost on Nov. 29 and Nov. 30 for Giving Tuesday when NBC 4 New York and Telemundo 47 will match certain donations to Tri-state area projects posted by teachers at “equity focus schools.”)
The No. 1 request from teachers at “equity focus schools” has been for educational kits and games, followed by books, instructional technology, classroom basics, and computers and tablets. Last year, when the majority of students were learning remotely, the most popular request from teachers was for computers and tablets — even though city schools invested in roughly 800,000 devices.
The increasing demand for kits and games likely reflects teachers’ desire to find new ways to capture students’ attention.
“We’ve heard from teachers that these resources help students stay engaged with learning content, especially in a time when hybrid learning, remote learning, and adjusted in-person learning have affected the classroom environment,” DonorsChoose spokesperson Juan Brizuela wrote in an email.
The overall number of projects posted by teachers at New York City “equity focus schools” through Nov. 22 dropped 10% from the same time in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic started, and it fell about 2% from the same time last year, according to DonorsChoose data.
“A few possible factors that may have contributed to this are: teachers feeling less certainty about when they’d be in or out of the classroom, limited ability to deliver resources directly to students in the past year, and/or needing fewer daily supplies because of the switch to digital learning,” Brizuela said.
For Sia, the Bronx teacher, the platform has been a lifeline for many teachers at her school, who often pay out of pocket for supplies and snacks and also donate other goods, like their older children’s gently worn coats. She often enlists help from relatives to fund her many projects, and sometimes dips into her own pocket to get them over the finish line, especially when DonorsChoose has a 50% match for certain projects.
“It also shows the kids in the classes the generosity of people that don’t even know them,” Sia said. “I hope it’s a memory that sticks with them as part of that ‘pay it forward’ — if you have something, maybe you can share with someone else and keep that kindness wheel going.”